Hallucinogens, tear gas made at Chemtronics site

Paul Clark

So what was buried at the Chemtronics property, the one that owners of the Swannanoa Superfund site will resume cleaning up in spring?

Buried there were clothes worn in the production of a powerful hallucinogen known as BZ, a chemical warfare agent made in strict secrecy for Army stockpiles in the 1960s, according to news reports and Environmental Protection Agency studies. Other waste material buried at the site on Bee Tree Road included byproducts from the manufacture of tear gas made during the Vietnam War, according to an Associated Press story published in the then-Asheville Citizen.

In a few months, Chemtronics and two other former owners of the 1,065-acre property will begin what is meant to be the last phase of cleanup efforts on about 10 acres of the 535-acre Superfund site. The $18 million project, to be paid for by Chemtronics, Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. and CNA Holdings, LLC, will take about 30 years to complete. The EPA has said 30 years is the minimum amount of time needed before groundwater there is safe to drink.

EPA did not cite the BZ compound or tear gas waste as reasons for the latest round of cleanups, which have going on since the 1980s. A previous EPA study indicated that BZ, which causes disorientation and hallucinations similar to LSD, had been neutralized and was not a threat. In January 1985 The Charlotte Observer reported that operators secretly made 150,000 pounds of BZ.

Amcel Propulsion Co., a subsidiary of Celanese Corp., made BZ at the site for Army chemical warfare stockpiles during the 1960s. Amcel was later purchased by Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. Chemtronics made no chemical warfare agents at the plant it acquired from Northrop, but it did produce chemical warfare decontamination kits for the military, as well as commercial explosive and flame retardants, news reports state.

BZ was made to be loaded into bombs, but it was never used because it makes some people docile and other violent, the Associated Press reported in January 1985. The BZ buried at the Chemtronics site was on suits and gloves that workers wore to make the compound, as well as in floor sweepings, according to news reports.

The public had no idea that BZ was being made there, the EPA reported in April 1988, until news got out that EPA, on a 1984 visit, discovered two large drums marked “BZ” that had worked themselves up from being buried.

Testing on the inner lining of one of the drums did not reveal the presence of BZ, indicating that a “neutralizing” agent packed in each drum with the clothing did its job, according to the news reports. Nonetheless, the two drums were removed in January 1985 and taken to hazardous waste facility near Sumter, South Carolina, the EPA reported. Some 300-500 drums remain buried on the site, covered by a impervious, synthetic layer beneath two feet of dirt, said Jon Bornholm, the EPA remedial project manager who has worked on the Superfund site since 1984.

“Our preferred alternative was to incinerate everything on site,” he said last week. “But we got well over 100 comments from the public that they didn’t like that idea. So we went with the ‘capping in place’ alternative.”

Prior to 1984, community concern about the site was low, the EPA said in its April 1988 report (state officials learned about the site possible hazards in 1979 when a nearby resident complained his dog was temporarily blinded after falling into one of the open acid pits there).

In 1980, a state inquiry led to the involvement of the EPA, which found cyanide in three monitoring wells. The discovery prompted EPA to put the site on its Superfund list. As a result, Buncombe County commissioners created the county Hazardous Waste Advisory Board. In February 1984, Warren Wilson College conducted its annual environmental studies seminar with Chemtronics as its case study.

In response to residents’ concerns, EPA sampled 13 residential and industrial wells in the area in November 1984 but found no groundwater contamination. Nonetheless, neighbors of the property and other community members were concerned.

During a Feb. 23, 1988 public hearing at Owen High School, members of the public said workers at Chemtronics, especially the mentally and physically handicapped Handiskills workers there, might not appreciate that the production of BZ could affect their health.

During that 1988 public hearing, residents also expressed concern over what they said were an unusually high number of cancer cases in the Harrison Hill Road area. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, one of the government panelists at the hearing, said it investigated and found nothing that would indicate residents and former employees had been exposed to the chemicals or suffered from their exposure.

In September 2016, EPA said the likelihood of contamination leaving the Superfund site via groundwater is “minimal.”